Turning Point

In my previous essay for the Prancing Pony Ponderings series, I wrote of Frodo’s meeting with the Elves of Gildor Inglorion’s company in the Woody End in Book I of The Lord of the Rings as an initiation into the mythic world, and found in that topic an excuse to count pages and words. This time around, I turn to another transition point later in the story; and not to be outdone by myself, I am not only counting pages, but I have also prepared a line graph. (In my next Prancing Pony Pondering, I intend to use integral calculus to prove that Tom Bombadil is Eru Ilúvatar.¹)

There are approximately 1145 pages in the standard paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings – including appendices, indices and forewords – making the midpoint of the text the chapter encompassing pp. 562-573: Book III, Chapter X, “The Voice of Saruman.” Conveniently, at the top of p. 572, near the end of the chapter, we find this passage:

‘Yes, we must go, and go now,’ said Gandalf. ‘I fear that I must take your gatekeepers from you. But you will manage well enough without them.’

‘Maybe I shall,’ said Treebeard. ‘But I shall miss them. We have become friends in so short a while that I think I must be getting hasty – growing backwards towards youth, perhaps. But there, they are the first new thing under Sun or Moon that I have seen for many a long, long day. I shall not forget them. I have put their names into the Long List. Ents will remember it.

Ents the earthborn, old as mountains,
the wide-walkers, water drinking;
and hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children,
the laughing-folk, the little people,

they shall remain friends as long as leaves are renewed. Fare you well! But if you hear news up in your pleasant land, in the Shire, send me word! You know what I mean: word or sight of the Entwives. Come yourselves if you can!’
     (The Two Towers, p. 572)

Treebeard’s comment about “growing backwards towards youth” implies a turning point in his long life: a turning point which, if it were to be plotted on a graph (and if it were meant to be taken literally, which it’s not, but humor me for a moment) would look something like this:

treebeard-growth-chart-revThis image reminds me immediately of “Freytag’s Pyramid,” the plot structure diagram that haunts the study sessions of middle schoolers everywhere in the English-speaking world. It diagrams the structure of a story as a triangle, with the rising action leading to a climax coming somewhere near the midpoint. The climax is the turning point of the story, a change in the fortunes of the hero(es) that begins the falling action of the rest of the story.

The events of Book III are in fact
the first clarion blasts announcing
the dawning of a new age:
an age in which the forces of good are ascendant.

Now it’s possible to get too caught up in this talk of triangles and midpoints, and it’s most likely a coincidence that Treebeard’s comment about “growing backwards” comes at the midpoint of the text. And in any event, I’m not prepared to say that this is the exact narrative midpoint of the story, even though it happens to be in the middle of the printed volume. But this chapter is a significant turning point for the story. Our heroes have recently emerged victorious from the battle of Helm’s Deep, and Saruman is overthrown, allowing us (and the forces of the West) to turn our attention to the East, to the threat of Sauron.

But the events of Book III have been no small victories, and are in fact the first clarion blasts announcing the dawning of a new age: an age in which the forces of good are ascendant. The fact that Hobbits are “the first new thing under Sun or Moon” that Treebeard has seen for a very long time, and he has entered them into the Long List, is a subtle hint that a new age is beginning.

Earlier in the chapter, we saw Saruman forced to come to terms with the dawning of this new age. When the heroes arrived at Orthanc to parley with Saruman, he dealt with them arrogantly and was promptly put in his place by Gandalf:

‘If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!’ He turned and left the balcony.

‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw.

‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots. Stay then! But I warn you, you will not easily come out again. Not unless the dark hands of the East stretch out to take you. Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’

He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet.
     (The Two Towers, p. 569)

The power dynamic has shifted, with Gandalf emerging as the more powerful Wizard. Saruman’s response indicates this is something for which he was utterly unprepared. Dragged against his will … leaning on the iron rail … breathing hard, clutching his staff – this is the posture of someone who doesn’t understand what is happening, and is furious about it. He isn’t used to being overpowered, or to not being in control.

Sensing his confusion, Gandalf calmly explains what is happening: “‘I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death.'” Gandalf’s words suggest that the chain reaction leading to the change in our heroes’ fortunes actually began at the moment that seemed the darkest: when he fell at Khazad-dûm. And why not? For it was in returning that Gandalf attained the power he needed to break Saruman and usher in this new age.

Of course, Saruman is broken but not destroyed by this encounter. The next time we see him, he will be lashing out in the most petty way imaginable: by turning the Shire into an industrial dystopia while the heroes’ attention is elsewhere. Humbled, reduced to a shadow of his former self and no longer able to influence the great events of history but only “gnaw the ends of [his] old plots,” he refuses to adapt and instead grasps at any modicum of power he can find. He is still full of hate and anger, but selects as targets the few people left in the world he mistakenly believes to be weaker than himself – a mistake that will ultimately destroy him.

Tolkien’s opinion of progress for its own sake is quite well known (he wasn’t a fan). But he recognized the inevitability and in fact the importance of change, going so far as to depict the desire to resist change as both futile and dangerous. This is the lesson of the Two Lamps (unchanging lights ill-suited for the ever-changing Arda Marred) and one of the many lessons of the Silmarils (which imprisoned the waxing/waning light of the Trees as constant white). But most notably, this is the lesson of the Elves themselves, whose “weakness” Tolkien described in Letter 181 as being “naturally to regret the past and to become unwilling to face change”: a weakness embodied in the Three Elven Rings, whose power was in preservation against the ravages of time.

And The Lord of the Rings is itself a story of change. It tells of the transition from a mythic past when the forces of good and evil did physical battle under the command of supernatural beings, to a modern age where good and evil vie solely in the actions of humans: simple, petty, often weak and stupid but occasionally brilliant and heroic in their way, humans. It’s the turning point at which those supernatural beings (Elves, Wizards, etc.) begin to leave Middle-earth to the dominion of Men. And though exact chronological placement is impossible, it can be roughly defined as a midpoint on the timeline between the Arda of the Elves and the Earth we live in today.

So it’s fitting that a page at the midpoint of the book shows the debut of the Hobbits on the Long List – the recognition of their emergence on the scene by one of the great and ancient supernatural creatures of Arda. After all, Hobbits are in many ways the one of Tolkien’s races most resembling modern humans – or at least modern humans as they should be, with their love for “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 1) From this turning point to its denouement at the Scouring of the Shire – and beyond – Tolkien seems to suggest that the most humble and Hobbitlike among us in the modern world will be those to take up the quest of making the Earth the place it should be; while the Sarumans of the world, unable to learn humility, will become weaker and weaker until finally their fell voices become nothing more than sighs on the wind, dissolving into nothing.

¹Not really, but now that I’ve put it out there I really hope someone will try. I promise not to laugh … too hard.

8 thoughts on “Turning Point

  1. good job as always, Shawn. I would suggest that, even if Bombadil were the One (‘Not the One.’ ‘Not the one what?’ ‘Not the One.’), the best result one could hope for from calculus would be an asymptote.

    It’s interesting that if we disregard the appendices and all the other back matter, the midpoint of the book falls on 515-516, another scene in which we see the power of Gandalf revealed in ways both great and subtle. It is the healing of Théoden by allowing him to see that ‘all is not so dark here’ — much like Sam and the star in Mordor. Gandalf brings him hope, which is of course what Gandalf has long excelled at, as the Silmarillion tells us.

    It also contains the epic: ‘Go Éowyn, sister-daughter,’ said the old king. ‘The time for fear is past.’ Which, aside from poking PJ’s misinterpretation of Théoden in particular and Men in general in the eye, also shows the same shift towards Men and the future that you brought out.

    • Thanks, Tom. And that’s an excellent insight about what is probably more appropriately considered the midpoint of the printed narrative.

      Your mention of Sam sent me back to Appendix B to find out where Frodo and Sam were during both of these episodes in the Gandalf/Aragorn story line. As it turns out, those two midpoints in the Book III story coincide with the end of the passage of the Dead Marshes (March 2) and the arrival at Desolation of the Morannon (March 4). It makes me wonder if Tolkien intended to juxtapose the turning points in Book III with the fact that Frodo and Sam kept going forward, given lots of chances to turn back, “only they didn’t.”

      • Shawn, what I think is really interesting is that, whichever way we look at it, whichever midpoint we choose, we see something that tells us much the same thing. That I think is far more telling than where the midpoint falls. I saw what I saw mostly because you lit the way. I think we also may need to take the parallels between Aragorn’s refusal to leave Merry and Pippin to die and Frodo’s refusal to bind Gollum and leave him to die. A pure calculus of advantage would have sent Aragorn after Frodo and Sam, and led Frodo to kill Gollum or leave him to die. Both of them act out of Pity, which leads to Hope, which leads us again to Gandalf. His words to Frodo, ‘The Pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many’, are a statement of Hope.

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